Vital Signs Monitoring:
Roadmap for the Gulf Coast Network
Four Phases of Developing a Vital Signs Monitoring Program
Development of the Gulf Coast Network Vital Signs monitoring program is a four phase process including Baseline Inventories, Vital Sign selection, Protocol Development, and Monitoring Plan Implementation. The Gulf Coast Network is currently conducting its baseline inventories, and if everything goes as planned, all baseline inventories should be initiated by FY 2005 with completion of all no later than FY 2006.
Selecting Vital Signs � A Closer Look
What is a �Vital Sign�?
A Vital Sign is the NPS analogy for an environmental indicator. We have borrowed this term from the medical profession because we are searching for indicators of environmental �health.� An indicator, or Vital Sign, is anything measurable that predictably responds to environmental changes. This has two important components:
Indicators are measurable. Measurements can be either quantitative or qualitative, but they have to be concrete enough to be either counted, classified, or ranked. For example, �Altered Fish Communities� is not measurable, but the percentage of exotic species within that community is.
Indicators are predictable. Indicators respond predictably to changes in the structure or function of ecosystems. The types of responses can vary widely � from correlations to threshold responses, but for an indicator to be of use, the response has to be the same every time.
There are many reasons to use indicators in monitoring programs, including cost, speed of data collection and analysis, and ease of communicating results:
Cost. It's often cheaper to measure the indicator than the actual thing you're interested in. For example, if you're interested in water quality in a stream where a sensitive species lives, it's generally cheaper to count the number of those fish present than it is to collect water quality samples and send them off to a laboratory for expensive analyses.
Speed. One of the main benefits of using indicators is that you have information that is immediately useful � you don't have to wait for an analytical report.
Communicating Results. People tend to identify with indicators better. People fish, hunt, walk outdoors, have pets, and watch nature shows on television. They have real-world experience with these things. Most people don't identify with environmental standards or how they were derived.
Our challenge is to choose the few of the literally hundreds of possible indicators so that the ones actually selected for monitoring will provide everyone with the best information for making management decisions.
How will we make sense of all these �Vital Signs�?
With hundreds of potential Vital Signs to choose from, we have to find some way to simplify things. To do this, we will be developing a �conceptual model� of the resources we have to manage and how Vital Signs monitoring can help us do that job. To do this, most of the other networks are following an approach developed by the Environmental Protection Agency that begins by first identifying key resources for each of the parks. After key resources are identified, the networks determine (a) agents of change, (b) ecosystem stressors, and (c) responses to those stressors. The twelve networks that have gone through this process have come up with very different conceptual models, but their goals have been essentially the same:
Clearly identify links between management issues and potential Vital Signs.
Provide framework for identifying Natural Resource issues and monitoring needs.
Identify common themes among diverse resources, managers, and other stakeholders.
Make sense out of chaos.
I have attached an example of a conceptual model for stream systems on Eglin Air Force Base.
Where do we start?
Before we will be able to design a conceptual model (or models) for the Gulf Coast Network, we will spend time gathering some necessary information. Four sources of information will be drawn upon during the Vital Signs scoping and planning process: planning documents, expert opinion, ongoing and completed research, and common sense. The Network staff will identify existing Natural Resource Management issues by reviewing the existing planning documents and conducting interviews with park staff and other experts as needed. All interviews will be conducted to identify the various �agents of change,� �stressors,� and �ecosystem responses� that the GULN parks may face when managing their natural resources.
Vital Signs scoping sessions began in FY 2003 and will continue through FY2004. This will be the venue to bring together internal and external experts to (a) review lists of management issues that our parks face, (b) clearly define the management questions that Vital Signs Monitoring can address, and (c) discuss draft conceptual models based on initial findings. Identifying potential Vital Signs will take place in FY 2005.
How are we going to select our �final� Vital Signs?
This is a very good question, and the short answer is we're not exactly sure yet. It is not likely that we will be able to measure every Vital Sign that we would want to, so one of our challenges will be to pare the list down to a core set of Vital Signs that provide the greatest benefit to managers. Currently, the National I&M coordinator is working with the Cumberland Piedmont and Appalachian Highlands Networks (also in the Southeast Region) to develop a protocol for prioritizing and selecting final Vital Signs. The methods by which the final Vital Signs will be chosen will be based on such things as management and/or ecological significance, cost, reliability, feasibility, and logistics to name a few.
Kurtz, J. C., L. E. Jackson, and W. S. Fisher. 2001. Strategies for evaluating indicators based on guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Research and Development. Ecological Indicators 1:49-60.
Vital signs, as defined by the NPS, are a subset of physical, chemical, and biological elements and processes of park ecosystems that are selected to represent the overall health or condition of park resources, known or hypothesized effects of stressors, or elements that have important human values. The elements and processes that are monitored are a subset of the total suite of natural resources that park managers are directed to preserve �unimpaired for future generations,� including water, air, geological resources, plants and animals, and the various ecological, biological, and physical processes that act on those resources. Because of the need to maximize the use and relevance of monitoring results for making management decisions, vital signs selected by parks may include elements selected because humans have assigned them important value (e.g., harvested or charismatic species) or because of some known or hypothesized threat or stressor/response relationship within a particular park resource. The broad-based, scientifically sound information obtained through natural resource monitoring will have multiple applications for management decisionmaking, research, education, and promoting public understanding of park resources.There are 42 identified vital signs for the GULN and these are presented within the vital signs framework as developed by the National Park Service Vital Signs Monitoring Program. Of these vital signs, 19 are considered to be higher priority for implementation under the scope of the current program. One of these vital signs refers to air and climate, one refers to geology and soils, three refer to water, two refer to ecosystem pattern and process, and twelve refer to biological integrity. Of the 19 high priority vital signs, the seven listed below are the considered the most important ones hence they are currently being developed and implemented at this time.
Vital Signs Monitoring Program Goals
- Determine the status and trends in selected indicators of park ecosystems to allow managers to make better-informed decisions and to work more effectively with other agencies and individuals for the benefit of park resources.
- Provide early warning of abnormal conditions of selected resources to help develop effective mitigation measures and reduce costs of management.
- Provide data to better understand the dynamic nature and condition of park ecosystems and to provide reference points for comparisons with other, altered environments.
- Provide data to meet certain legal and Congressional mandates related to natural resource protection and visitor enjoyment.
- Provide a means of measuring progress towards performance goals.